Toronto Star | 27Aug2009 | Orest Slepokura
Letters to Editor

Comments on Dow Marmur column of 24Aug2009

Rabbi Dow Marmur's column reminds me of the first book I read that gave me the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was by the Rev. A.C. Forrest, one-time editor of the The United Church Observer. His trail-blazing book, The Unholy Land, on his work to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinian refugees sold out several editions in the early and mid-1970s.

In both its introduction and foreword to the American Edition Rev. Forrest described being routinely smeared as an "anti-Semite" for having had the temerity to show concern for the plight of Palestinian refugees. He described learning the hard way the "truth" of James Reston's comment in the New York Times: "You can put it down as a general rule that any criticism of Israel's policies will be attacked as anti-Semitism."

Noting both the frequency and baselessness of the charge of anti-Semitism that was levelled against him and others (for example, the eminent British historian, Arnold Toynbee), Forrest remarked that "the label [of 'anti-Semite'] has been pinned on so many so often by such foolish and fanatical men that it isn't taken seriously any more."

After criticizing Israel, Forrest says he was labelled, "that creature," a "virulent anti-Zionist," and "an enemy of Israel." One rabbi at a distinguished social gathering told him, "You'll have a page in Jewish history along with Adolf Hitler," and "I'd like to know what the Arabs are paying you."

The book also included gruesome photos of a Palestinian man being treated for severe napalm burns. Although this fact is little known in North America, the Israel army during the Six Day War napalmed fleeing Palestinian refugees that included children.

"Later," Forrest writes [p. 17], "I did publish one of the pictures in the United Church Observer, of a little girl recovering from napalm burns. That, I was told, proved I was anti-Semitic. To condemn napalm in Vietnam is alright. To report its use by the Israelis is considered anti-Semitic."

Orest Slepokura, Strathmore, Alta.

Orest Slepokura’s use of an unfounded allegation derived from a book written by one-time editor of the United Church Observer, A.C. Forrest, is most troubling. Forrest, an avowed anti-Zionist and Arab nationalist, claimed (without citing any real evidence) that Israeli forces in the Six-Day War had “napalmed fleeing Palestinian children”. Such a serious charge should be supported by factual evidence, yet nowhere can the veracity of this charge be proven.

By no means is Forrest’s work “trail-blazing” nor can his writings be considered scholarly, objective, or credible. When Forrest first made this allegation it was condemned. To recall, long-time readers of the Observer will note that immediately following the Six-Day War, Forrest ensured that nearly every issue of his magazine would contain an article criticizing Israel. Canadian political scientist David Taras and David Goldberg’s book: The Domestic Battleground: Canada and the Arab Israeli Conflict investigated the history of A.C. Forrest’s anti-Zionist campaign and the Observer’s propagandist polemics.

With respect to the credibility, or lack thereof of the Observer, Forrest, and the napalm allegation, Taras wrote the following:

“Alarm increased when the Observer launched a campaign of vehement attacks against Israel and Zionism. While the Middle East conflict had not been one of the magazine’s major concerns before 1967, after the Six-Day war it became an obsession. In 1967 alone seven out of twelve issues dealt with the Middle East in one fashion or another, and from the June 1967 war to July 1969, twenty-four issues contained articles, editorials, or exchanges of letters on the subject.

The Observer’s first response to the Six-Day War came in the August 1967 issue when the editor, Dr. A.C. Forrest, wrote in an editorial: “Informed and objective Christians cannot be 100% for Israel in the Middle East struggle. While Arab threats to destroy Israel must be condemned… it must also be remembered that the provocations and threats were not from only one side.” In the October issue, which was devoted almost entirely to Forrest’s impressions of a visit to the Middle East, the editor was more forceful. He attacked Israel for its “intolerable racist policies” and a “19-year-old record of inhumanity.” Israel was accused of territorial aggrandizement at the expense of Palestinians. Forrest felt that the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their former homes and that Israel should be pressured by the international community to solve the Palestinian problem. To illustrate this argument, the Observer ran photographs depicting Palestinian refugees and the squalor of the refugee camps. One picture, almost a full page in size, showed a small girl horribly burnt in what the magazine claimed as an Israeli napalm attack. The October issue of the Observer signaled the beginning of a long-term anti-Israel campaign.

Israel’s supporters were outraged. For example, the Toronto Rabbi, W. Gunther Plaut, denounced Forrest’s views, arguing “there was, so Forrest led his readers to believe, something wrong not only with Israel but with the Jewish character.” Within the Jewish community it was widely assumed that the Observer had acted with the church’s approval. Thus Gerson Avner, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, characterized the Observer’s coverage as “vicious” and asked whether the church was “prepared to have its publication turned… into an adjunct of the Arab League Propaganda Office.” A spokesmen for B’nai Brith argued that “the church, by its silence, condones these attacks.”

Obviously, just because an individual wrote a book, doesn’t mean that the information is credible and sacrosanct. Just consider the works of David Irving, Ernst Zundel, and Norman Finkelstein for example.

Mike Fegelman
Executive Director
HonestReporting Canada

Toronto Star | 24Aug2009 | Dow Marmur

Ghosts of dark ages haunt church on Israel
To mark its 75th anniversary in 2000, the United Church of Canada published a book about different aspects of its work. I was privileged to contribute a chapter in which I wrote about the respect in which many members of the United Church are held in the Jewish community and about my own warm relations with several of its leaders. This is being written in the fervent hope that it will stay that way.

I wrote that "liberal Jews and liberal Christians are at their best, not when they argue about politics or discuss theology, but when they share their religious insights and manifest their commitment to the teachings of their respective traditions by working together on specific projects." As an example of the opposite, I referred to the continued sticking point of Israel: "Christians tend to view Israel through the prism of their theology of salvation while Jews see it in the context of their quest for survival."

In 2003 I was a guest at the church's triennial general council when it endorsed the declaration, Bearing Faithful Witness, about Jewish-Christian relations. It's a gem. But it was implicitly negated at other meetings when I had to plead with delegates not to belie the spirit of the trail-blazing document they had just adopted by unwarranted and malicious condemnations of Israel, the existence of which is central to the survival and the future not only of Jews but also of Judaism.

Despite pressure from groups within the church who seem to be victims of left-wing anti-Israel prejudices, encouraged by politicized professionals, many delegates saw reason and the damaging proposals didn't pass. But it was obvious that attempts to confuse Christian theology with political condemnation of the Jewish state would reappear on future occasions.

They did three years later. Once again, blindly hostile draft resolutions about Israel were wholesomely modified by the delegates.

The trend has continued. Though an anti-Israel agenda was once again aired at the just concluded general council, this time delegates repudiated the written background material couched in what was described as "provocative, unbalanced and hurtful" language. Rabbi Reuven Bulka, one of Canada's most distinguished religious leaders and a guest, told the delegates that the material was "born out of hateful comments."

The vexatious resolutions arising out of the material were subsequently also defeated. There would be no call for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, which in Judaism are normally bound up with religion. Interfaith relations wouldn't be wrecked. For the third time in a row attempts to single out Israel as the villain of the peace while going easy on the countless massive violations of human rights elsewhere in the world had been defeated. The integrity of Canada's largest Protestant denomination was compromised but, in the end, it appears to have survived.

Will the United Church now learn its lesson and at last embark on implementing the message of Bearing Faithful Witness, which so far has been obscured by politics?

I believe that most rank-and-file members of the United Church would welcome it, not because they're against criticizing Israel but because they know that the politicization of religious prejudices in the name of theological high-mindedness promotes neither peace nor human rights but violates both.

The attempts to embarrass Israel are probably not anti-Semitic in the accepted sense of the term. They reflect its earlier and specifically Christian incarnation: supersessionism, the belief that Christianity has "superseded" Judaism, making it irrelevant and menacing. The American theologian Kendall Soulen identifies the three dimensions of the doctrine that cannot bear to regard Jews as equals to be punitive, economic and structural. The proposed anti-Israel resolutions at the general council reflected all three categories. Despite the avowed liberalism of the United Church, the ghosts from the dark ages seem to be haunting some of its policy-makers.

Not that Israel should be above criticism and much of it is being voiced forcefully and persuasively by Jews and non-Jews alike. But genuine critics always try to look after their own souls and the bodies of others, not their own bodies and the souls of others.

Preoccupation with the souls of others disguised as service to God and couched in the language of prayer and study, even when expressed in lofty theological terms, makes for prejudice and divisiveness that reflect supersessionism; it's hypocrisy under another name. Practical cooperation to heal the bodies of others promotes peace; it's religion at its best.

If the United Church of Canada means what it says, even its radical members should consider looking at their own souls by opting for genuine pursuit of peace instead of partisan politics disguised as piety. Working together for the welfare and security of Palestinians and Israelis alike, rather than demonizing others, would go a long way.

Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.